In Boston’s South End there is a retailer who sells wine differently. Based on a strategy first developed on-premise, The Urban Grape does not focus at first on flavor or varietal when its staff recommends bottles for customers. Instead, the husband-and-wife ownership team of TJ and Hadley Douglas have organized their bottle wall, and zero in on customer preferences, with a focus on weight and mouthfeel of wines.
The duo behind The Urban Grape outlines their unique strategy in their new book “Drink Progressively.” We recently caught up with TJ and Hadley to chat about the process of selling customers wine based on people’s preferences for weight and mouthfeel.
Beverage Dynamics: Why recommend wines by weight?
TJ Douglas: It helps customers better understand their palates, better than if you organized wine by varietal or region. And it’s better for helping customers pair wines with food. The weight is the most important thing with wine. People drink by body without knowing it.
We use a lot of terminology in the wine world and those terms can be intimidating to some people. But people understand body weight and mouthfeel. We rank weight on a scale from 1-10, based on Kevin Zraly’s “Windows On the World” comparison of wine’s body weight to that of skim milk, whole milk or heavy cream. Do you prefer wine that is smooth and watery in the mouth or more heavy and coating?
When a customer enters our store and we ask them what they’re looking for, and instead of just saying, ‘Well, I have the perfect wine for you’, we’ll taste them using the Coravin system, and we’ll ask them what they like to drink and what they’re doing with the wine. Let’s say they love pinot noir. We’ll take them to the pinot noir section, which like all the sections is organized vertically on the scale from 1-10, from light bodied at the top to heavier bodies on the bottom. We’ll determine that they’re a drinker somewhere in the 5-7 range in terms of a red wine’s body. Now I can recommend 50 wines that will satisfy their palate.
Using the milk comparison, I’ll figure out they like red wine with a whole-milk mouthfeel in the $15 range. Now that customer can get exactly what they like — and we never even discussed flavor.
BD: How does that help pair wine with food?
Hadley Douglas: It really simplifies and helps it. Customers will go to the farmers market and pick out perfect food, and then go to the butcher and buy grass-fed organic beer. But then they’ll stop at the liquor store and just grab whatever’s on sale. Our scale helps show that wine is the last part of that well-thought-out equation of what’s for dinner.
On restaurant menus you don’t have short ribs on top and oysters on the bottom. No, it’s the other way around. Same with our system: lighter wines on top, like lighter food, and then everything progresses together downward towards what’s heavier.
BD: What was the origin of this philosophy?
TD: It first started when I was reading “Windows on the World.” I’ve read many wine books but that was the first where I thought, ‘Oh, I really get this’. It breaks wine down to something everyone understands: weight and acidity.
I was working then on the restaurant side of the business, as a wine buyer and general manager. I had a lot of seasonal staff. I wanted them to give great service with wine-and-food pairing recommendations. That’s difficult when you have seasonal staff working just three-to-four months, and some may not even be wine drinkers. So I reorganized the wine menu like the food menu, with the lighter, higher-acidic wines higher up like the oysters and salads, and the less-acidic, heavier wines on the bottom like the ossobuco or the bolognese. That made it much easier for the seasonal staff.
I next worked for the distribution side, and made my wine proposals for restaurants the same way. When we opened the first Urban Grape in 2010, the concept came with me, organizing wines vertically, progressively from the scale of 1-10.
HD: For the first six months after we opened, all the wine distributors thought we were nuts to try to change the way wine is sold. But eventually they realized that it really does work. And the winemakers who come in, they all think that this is the way wine should be sold. It’s really reaffirming to hear that.
BD: Besides your progressive philosophy, is there anything else notable about your book?
HD: This is one of the few wine books written by people who sell wine all day long. We hear everything that the customer likes and doesn’t like. So much of our wine opinions are shaped by the customer, and by being on the frontline every day. We’re not some wine writers who think about wine all day long but never work with the end-users. I think that makes our book different.